Spirits in the halls of Oak Park/River Forest High School?
By Arthur Cola
(The author will be presenting at Festa Italiana in Washington D.C. on Oct. 9 and at the American Italian Historical Association’s 44th Annual Conference in Tampa, FL from Oct. 20-22, 2011)
The Marching Band stands under the entrance canopy keeping out of the soft rain as the Irish would call the steady drizzle falling on the stadium field. The Cheerleaders dressed in their short skirts and carrying the bright foil Pom Poms of orange and blue line up along the football field’s side line. The players are no where to be seen as yet. All is ready for the homecoming game.
On the other end of the stadium the new addition almost butts up to the stadium. In the north cafeteria of that building a pep talk is being given to a group of smiling people decked out with Buttons and name tags. Principal Nathaniel Rouse stands before the audience, most are munching on sweet rolls provided by the Alumni Association. He is proudly presenting the accomplishments of the high school, their stellar academic status of consistently being in the top 10% nationwide, their creative fine arts programs, the many athletic events going on that very day in addition to the Homecoming Football Game, and high percentage of graduates who go onto college.
Suddenly sounds of cheering filter through the open windows.
“Two, four, six, eight, who do we appreciate?” Oak Park, Oak Park, Huskies, Huskies!
Boys in white pants and shirts with orange and blue stripes and girls in pleated thigh high skirts with orange and blue panels and white tops with accents of the school colors urge the crowds on and on to shout a reply to their question.
It’s Homecoming at Oak Park River Forest High School circa 1960. But wait, it’s September 25, 2011. What’s going on here?
I snapped back to seeing the Principal and give my wife a look of, what gives? She tells me that I haven’t been listening. “We are being formed into groups by year of Graduation,” she informs me. Those celebrating their 50th Anniversary were gathering over by the sweet rolls, which tempted me to try yet another. I resisted and won. Quite proud that I had done so, I chatted with fellow Alumni who had come back home from as far as New York and Virginia, California and Florida. There was even one from Oak Park, who never left Illinois. I told them that I lived just over the border in Wisconsin.
Appreciative as she was of our having traveled home, our tour guide was on a mission. Like ducklings in a row we followed obediently. We walked into what was announced as the new addition to the school we knew during our four years. “There’s 1 million square feet of school now,” she said restating the Principal’s statistic. The wide reception hall was bordered by the Wall of honor on which hung photos of accomplished alumni, like Miss America 1991, Ernest Hemingway and noted artists, musicians, CEO’s like Ray Koch, the founder of McDonalds, and so forth.
We stood under the school’s Coat of Arms with its Motto of “Those things that are best” written in the Greek language. I looked at my High School Ring with that same emblem on its black onyx stone in gold. To our right was the Main Auditorium where the big musicals and plays are performed.. “It seats over 2,000,” our guide pointed out. To the left is the small theater where one acts, concerts, debates and special events are held.
But these were not here in 1961 when you graduated. This was built in 1967 so it’s the new addition. I looked at my wife of 44 years. “See we’re still newly weds as it was built in the same year as we were married.”
The guide walked us to the old main staircase which has seen thousands of students since 1907 as they rushed up and down it terrazzo tiled steps holding onto oak railings set on iron grill work. I could see myself taking a wrong turn and going up the down staircase. Didn’t they make a movie about that? While thinking this we were already walking up those hallowed stairs and standing in front of a solid wood door. A plaque read, the Ernest Hemingway Room.
A voice was coming out of the restored room as it looked back in the early 1900’s when Hemingway attended Oak Park High School. A voice was coming out of the room. I edged closer to it opening.
“Never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”
I peaked in and there stood a man in a heavy wool sweater, graying beard and short hair combed to the side. He closed the book and turned. His eyes met mine. I was startled but dared not turn away. “Could it be he?” I thought. I walked into the historically restored room with its “black board” trimmed in oak still in use. The large windows had the Oak Park River Forest coat of arms in stained glass about half way up the panels of glass. Behind me entered our tour group and in front of me this figure of distinction seemed to evaporate before my eyes. I picked up the book. The title read, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Ernest Hemingway.
I stood near the doorway watching but nothing happened. Echoing in the halls however were voices but not those of other tour groups.
“I come to bury Caesar not to praise him.”
“Veni, Vidi, Vici,” “I came, I saw, I conquered.”
“Habemus Papam” “We have a Pope.”
I slipped out wondering where these voices echoing Latin phrases and Shakespearean lines emanated. I found myself at the doorway of the Latin Room for classical studies.
The sunlight had broken through the clouds and streams of sun rays illuminated the bust of Julius Caesar, another made the marble desk in the room’s center glow and yet another shone on the murals on the walls depicting scenes of ancient Rome. Then in a corner a young man clothed not in a Toga but in Roman War attire stood with hand raised up.
“Hail Caesar.” Augustus stood before me. “I came to Rome when it was a city of brick and I leave it a city of marble,” he shouted.
The clanging of swords on shields was replaced by the chatter of our tour group. My wife took my picture standing next to Julius Caesar and I felt warmth coming out of the statue. This was becoming overwhelming for me. It seemed that all the classics were coming alive.
And so I was delighted that our next stop would be that new auditorium. We entered from the rear of the stage looking out over the audience. “Careful for the edge of the stage, there’s quite a drop into the pit,” the guide cautioned.
Suddenly as I looked out, what I saw was not the new theater but the one in which our class heard advice from Ann Landers, saw a film from National Geographic and then it happened.
“When you’re a jet, you’re a jet all the way.” Youths sang as they danced down the aisles. But these were not just ordinary students they were the Jets and the Sharks from “West Side Story.” It all came back. How we performed a version of that famous musical which taught us tolerance and acceptance of all people way back in 1961.
I turned to yet another image. It was eight students of the Masqueraders Club and one of them was me. All were dressed in a Military Uniform of some kind. I was wearing the Marine Uniform jacket of my father with its Sergeant stripes. Each was trying to give an order to the other in sequence. But all were saying it so quietly that one could hardly hear what was being said. Finely, the last one, who was me, asked a question. “Why are we whispering?” And the first person in the line replied, “Because I have a cold.”
The images vanished and after all these years I still cannot explain what the purpose of that scene was.
There was no time to seek an answer however. We were on a march to the Field House.
Excitement built steadily as everyone anticipated going into the famous tunnel linking the main building underground with the Field House where gym classes were held and the swimming pools were located. We were deflated however to learn that it was no longer in use. The new building made it unnecessary. The Field House with its indoor track surrounding the basketball court with its balcony seating overlooking the whole expanse was alive with activity. Mirrored Glass Balls were being strung up by a crew getting the far end of the Field House ready for the Homecoming Dance. Our group began to wander about to examine the banners and awards displayed.
A long line of girls appeared dressed in gowns of white and carrying a bouquet of Red Roses. Parallel to them were young men in suit and ties with a red rose boutonnière in their lapels. Marching music began and I stepped out of their way as they processed to the stage where their diplomas would be awarded. I remembered my Graduation Dance date, Diane, in her white gown which I was worried I would trip over because I wasn’t a very good dancer.
A hand tapped me on my shoulder. “We’re going to the swimming pool,” my wife informed me. One of the guys immediately began to reminisce of those days when the guys had their own class and the girls their own class. The guys swam in the nude and the girls in what they called God Awful swim suits. Modesty prevents me from describing those days of straddling a pipe which jetted out streams of cold water as the guys entered the pool area.
But the shouts of “It’s cold!” and “I hope I don’t shrivel” could be heard loud and clear.
The guide drowned out those shouts with the news that our group would be privileged to walk through the tunnel. Everyone perked up and chattered about the good old days of running through that tunnel trying to get to the next class on time.
We stood in awe looking down the now unused tunnel. No puddles of water, no throngs of students rushing but just one figure. It was a rather large well built guy talking to a short freshman.
“Where do you think you’re going?” the big guy asked.
“Just going to English class with Mrs. King,” the freshman replied meekly.
“Well, then hand over the Tunnel Toll Fee,” the husky lad directed.
Now having never experienced that legendary act which frightened the poop out of most incoming freshmen, I can only relate that the spirits of the Reunion were having a bit of fun with us mere mortals coming once again to the days of their youthful educational endeavors.
And so we walked through the Oak Park River Forest High School Tunnel and back into a world of Homecoming excitement, tales of our High School days and sharing our lives with each other. We the Class of 1961 had and have experienced “Those Things that are Best.”
(Arthur Ronald Colaianni of the Oak Park River Forest High School Class of 1961 writes under the name of Arthur Cola. He is a retired educator and author. His novels include: The Stone Cutter Genius, The Shamrock Crown and Papa and the Leprechaun King. His book for children is titled Papa and the Gingerbread Man. He has also written screenplays based on his novels. You may join him on a tour of Ireland, Britain or Italy which are based on his books. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org Become his friend on Facebook. Order his books at Amazon.com/arthurcola.
Blog site: http://www.arthurcolalegendarytales.wordpress.com )
Arthur Cola with Julius Caesar in Latin Classroom
of Oak Park River Forest High School.
Arthur Cola at Memorial to Ernest Hemingway at
Oak Park River Forest High School
“Those Things That Are Best”Motto of Oak Park River Forest High School in Illinois
Donna Colaianni in Latin Classroom of
The Legenedary Tunnel